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Peter Stetina's guide to nutrition for gravel domination... or survival

Stetina stopping to grab some food at last year's Dirty Kanza
Stetina stopping to grab some food at last year's Dirty Kanza (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

This article is part of Gravel Week on Cyclingnews, a whole week dedicated to the stories, personalities, and tech of cycling's up-and-coming discipline. Here, Peter Stetina, who left WorldTour road racing to become a full-time gravel 'privateer' racer, shares his tips for what to eat and drink on a day on the dirt. For all of our other Gravel Week stories, click here

There are ultra-endurance races that will take you longer, but most gravel races, or at least the big ones, fall between the 6-10-hour mark.

I get so many questions when it comes to fueling on the bike, so here are my top nutritional tips for long rides or races.

Plan your strategy and stick to it

Assuming you have a few weeks - or even months - until your big day, it’s important to arrive at your race or ride with the best nutritional plan possible. You can have the best legs in the world coming into a race but if you don’t fuel your body properly you’re going to come unstuck on a long gravel ride. 

And trust me, getting hunger knock or bonking on a hot day when you’re already suffering is going to not only make you slower but it’s also going to put you at risk of dehydration.

If you have the time, it’s worth experimenting with different brands of drinks and food during your training. You’ll find out what works for you, what tastes better and what gives you a pick-me-up when you need it most. Honestly, nutrition is just as important as training when it comes to long rides. Once you’re dialed in with your plan, don’t take any unnecessary risks on the day. If you’re on the start-line and your buddy offers you a gel that’s worked for him in the past, resist the urge to take it.

Over-pack on snacks

Like clothing, it’s always better to start with too much than too little. Pack more food than you think you need because a lot of organized rides or races will want you to be self-sufficient. 

You also might be out there for longer than you originally intended – maybe because of a mechanical or perhaps you’re just not on a great day. If you get to an aid station and you feel like you’ve still got too much food you can also drop some off. 

Better still, try and see if any of your riding buddies are struggling because in those circumstances it’s fine to deviate from the plan.

Kirsten Walker double-checked her set bag full of snacks and gear before the DKXL.

Kirsten Walker packs her snacks at last year's Dirty Kanza (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Breakfast

The problem with all these gravel races is that they all start at 6am, which is horrible and means that you’re eating breakfast at 4am. If you know that you'll struggle putting down food that early, focus on a big dinner the night before as your stomach might be telling you it’s not hungry at such an early point in the day. 

Just relax and take on the food that you can, and don't make yourself uncomfortable. I go for oats and yoghurt, washed down with coffee but I think it’s also super important to also have a big meal the night before. When it comes to coffee don't drink more than what's normal for you, because it can dehydrate you.

Solid chew

During the race you want to start with solid food. I tend to kick things off with a Clif bar and then try and keep on the solids for as long as possible.

These days are so long that I’ll even tuck into a sandwich in the first half of the day. Ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly are great options and if you take them on board early enough they’ll be fully absorbed by your body during the second half of the race. 

The sugars come later, see below.

Hydration

I go for a blend of one bottle of mix and one bottle of water on the bike. By mix I mean an energy drink and I’ll alternate between the two as I’m riding. 

The energy drink will help pump electrolytes into your body and help you offset cramps, while the water will keep you topped up and help you take on the food that you’re eating. If it’s cold then go with a higher calorie drink because it’s easy to take on liquids when your fingers are too cold to handle wrappers. 

2018 winner Ted King stayed active at the front as the pace shed riders around mid-race.

For long races, riders often carry fluids in backpacks and drink through a hose (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Sharing is caring

For anyone who followed Dirty Kanza last year, you might have heard about the Twizzler hand-up that saved me. When I raced there last year I was in a real hole, totally empty on fuel, and in the last 15 miles when I realized that Colin Strickland wasn’t coming back but that I was far enough ahead of the EF boys I completely and utterly bonked, more than I ever had in my life.

I was passing a rider who was on the 100-mile course and as I and others passed her she would stick out her hand and Yell "Twizzler hand-up!". Just that little piece of 60-calorie candy got me through to the finish. 

Apparently she’s known for this and gives snacks out. I challenge you to then go to a road race and ask a competitor for a gel in the final of a race. See what happens. The gravel community looks out for each other, and if you did follow my advice above and packed extra snacks, pay it forward. Extra points in the Karma-Bank are a good thing!

The plastic penalty is OK to accept

If, for whatever reason, you’re getting through your food too quickly or you need something cold to combat the heat then a credit card can be your get out of jail card. In most gravel events, you can visit a store so long as long as you exit and re-enter the course at the same point. 

If you see a service station, it's ok to penalize yourself by pedaling a bit out of the way to help yourself. That pack of Twinkies might just get you through to the aid station or the finish. 

Peter Stetina

Stetina is now a full-time gravel rider (Image credit: Peter Stetina)

Timing

Try and eat an energy bar every hour. For the number crunchers out there, you want to try and consume 300-400 calories per hour. More than that, and it can get tricky because that’s already at the upper limit of what your body can absorb, and you don’t want the extra mass or pressure on your gut. Less than that, though, and you’re cutting off the fuel that your body will require for a long event. 

If you’re not a fan of energy bars then go to cookies but just be wary of taking on board too much sugar early in the race, otherwise you risk the dangerous 'gut-rot'. But let's say it’s a 5-6 hour ride: I’ll bring along five Clif bars, a sandwich for the first four hours and then a pack of gummies such as Clif Bloks that are close to gels but just a bit more solid. I’ll have two or three gels for the last hour. 

Blood, sweet and gears

Stay away from the sugary gels until the final. You’ve got to think of gels as if they’re rocket fuel for your body and you never want to hit that rocket fuel button too early because if you do you’ll pay for it later. 

Hitting the gels too early will create a sugar spike but then you’ll feel a drop and then it might affect your gut. These events are so long and if you get to the point where your stomach stops accepting food then you’re in major trouble. Save those gels for the final two hours. 

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